|A Voice Still Heard
"Voice of Ashkenaz--The Music and Culture of German and Central European
Jewry: Remembrance and Renewal"
By Neil Levin
A musical culture full of regional melodies and
sophisticated sacred music once flourished in German-speaking Jewish
communities. Franz Liszt wrote of coming to the synagogue and listening to
cantorial music. People from the royal courts came. Even Lewis Carroll came.
Yet few today will recognize or even hear the names of the once-prominent
Oberkantoren (chief or principal cantors). And even as eastern European
Jewish music is enjoying a renaissance, many of the regional tunes and grand
choral traditions are rapidly being forgotten.
The face of Jewish music changed forever during the
nineteenth century when Salomon Sulzer, Vienna's first
Oberkantor, fused traditional synagogue melodies with the techniques of
Western music. This new approach, artistic and well-schooled, quickly became
central to prayer in virtually all German synagogues and a symbol of modern
Jewry through the work of Louis Lewandowski.
The first cantor ever to receive formal conservatory
training and the first Jew ever admitted to the Berlin Academy of Arts,
Lewandowski was music director of Berlin's Neue Synagoge. He brought
Sulzer's model to Berlin and began composing his own music for the entire
liturgy. He became extremely popular not only in Berlin, where the
repertoire was almost exclusively Lewandowski, but even in the deepest
recesses of Poland and Ukraine, revealing the significant influence of the
German synagogue far beyond Germany's borders. In fact, this period
witnessed the rise of an elaborate cantorial and choral literature
throughout Germany and Austria that became a source of civic pride even for
Outside the synagogue, German Jewry developed a broad
tapestry of regional melodies. Some families handed down tunes through the
generations, especially in Frankfurt where they were considered communal
treasures. German kohanim had melodies that no one else sang. Distinct tunes
existed for Shabbat zemirot, for portions of the seder and even for secular
Zionist songs. Most of these, some known only in a single community, are now
German Jews contributed greatly to the musical culture
of their host society. By the start of the twentieth century, the
orchestras, chamber groups and opera houses counted many Jews among their
performers. But as Hitler assumed power, Jews were excluded from all German
musical organizations and forbidden to perform in the great concert halls of
Germany. Even the most famous artists were restricted to performing with
Jewish groups in synagogues and Jewish community centers. Nonetheless, both
the grand synagogues in German cities and the modest ones in smaller towns
resonated with stirring musical expressions of prayer until the infamous
night in 1938 when most were reduced to smoldering rubble.
Much of this musical legacy, one of the most
significant achievements in Jewish cultural history, will be reconstructed,
discussed and performed for the first time in nearly sixty years when the
Seminary hosts a major international conference this November. "Voice of
Ashkenaz--The Music and Culture of German and Central European Jewry:
Remembrance and Renewal" is an effort to restore this music's place in
Jewish consciousness and to begin to understand its value. Co-sponsored by
JTS, the Leo Baeck Institute and Hebrew Union College--Jewish Institute of
Religion, the conference will culminate in a concert at Lincoln Center's
Alice Tully Hall.
"Voice of Ashkenaz" will take place at JTS and other
locations around New York City from November 7 to November 11. This
congress, the first ever on this subject, will coincide with the fifty-ninth
anniversary of Kristallnacht. Directed by JTS assistant professor of Jewish
music Neil Levin, it will feature academic papers and lectures by some of
the finest scholars from throughout America, Europe and Israel; musical
demonstrations; and three major concerts. The conference, open to the
general public, is expected to draw participants from as far away as
Australia and South Africa.
Shabbat services reconstructing pre-war German
synagogue ambiance and music with attention to both historical and aesthetic
accuracy will open the conference. Friday night services will follow the
Berlin tradition with the music of Louis Lewandowski. Shabbat morning
services will be devoted to the Munich and Frankfurt traditions. Torah and
haftarah readings will be chanted according to the German cantillation.
A special dinner at the Seminary will honor
Estrongo Nachama, the chief cantor of Berlin from just after the
war until his recent retirement. Nachama, who will be present along with a
group of the last remaining pre-war German cantors, restored some of the
Berlin cantorial tradition in the late 1940's and managed to keep it at
least active during the very difficult post-war period.
At Lincoln Center, major cantorial works dormant for
nearly six decades will be performed by prominent Conservative and Reform
cantors such as Alberto Mizrahi, David Lefkowitz, Ira Bigeleisen, Israel
Goldstein and Ida Rae Cahana along with the Seminary's H. L. Miller
Cantorial School Chorus, HUC's chorus and the choirs of three major
Entitled "Soul of Ashkenaz" the performance will open with
the once famous Deutsche Kedusha, a grand Lewandowski
composition synthesizing German language and music with Hebrew liturgy.
The program at Merkin Concert Hall will explore the
non-religious music of this period. Among the performances are "From Berlin
to Jerusalem," featuring music by German-Jewish emigre composers in
Palestine in the 1930's; three world premieres, two commissioned especially
for this occasion; and recently discovered Jewish music by Kurt Weill.
Neil Levin is assistant professor of Jewish music.
1997 The Jewish
Theological Seminary of America
The Jewish Theological Seminary's web site offers a wide variety of
information regarding JTS and Judaism, both Conservative and general.
(house of learning) is named after a remarkable educational program begun in
Frankfurt by the great German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig in 1920.
Rosenzweig brought together prominent Jewish philosophers of his day with
leading Jewish figures in the academic and cultural worlds--including Martin
Buber, Erich Fromm and Abraham
Joshua Heschel--to promote mutual enrichment and a new kind of Jewish
learning. The JTS Lehrhaus, held twice a year since 1986, meets once a week
for six weeks and takes place at the Seminary's scenic and peaceful
Manhattan campus, one block north of Columbia University's Teachers College.